Breast cancer lesson 149: Ten things breast cancer has taught me that I never thought I’d ever need to know

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As I begin my last full week of active treatment (the end is now just a week away), I have started to reflect on the last nine months and the impact this unbelievable chapter has had on my life.

I think it is fair to say I have discovered an awful lot about myself and life in general as my body has been systematically destroyed and put back together again. I will be sharing these life lessons here over the coming months, but I thought I’d start by looking back on the things I never thought I’d ever need to know!

It’s amazing how we can move through life completely unaware of the intricacies of a certain topic or illness. Then, something changes, and we are required to become an instant expert. Back in lesson number 32 I remember describing the language of breast cancer as something not dissimilar to school. With talk of grades, stages and examinations, all I was missing was a satchel and a uniform (unless a backless gown counts)!

Beyond the booklets and the cancer glossaries, however, there are other learnings for which no amount of reading can prepare you. It’s true that I never thought I’d need to know these things, but, in a funny sort of way, I’m rather glad I do. It makes me cherish the bits of my body I still have that little bit more – and reminds me just how wonderful the human body really is.

Here’s my top ten (trust me, there are many many more). Consider this my alternative breast cancer guide!

1) Tummy fat is pretty intelligent: Top of the list has to be the fact that your tummy fat, wherever it is positioned on your body, never forgets its origins. Hard to believe unless you see it in action! I have been losing weight since the end of chemo so I am evening up a bit now! I must confess, tummy fat is a lot better looking up top.

2) Arranging an appointment to see the Orthotist is like signing up for a spy mission: I will never forget the day I got a voice message from the patient appliances department that was so cryptic (along the lines of ‘Miss Scully, we think you know why we’re calling, so please get in touch to book in a time’, I had no idea what appointment I needed to call to arrange. Starting the call with: ‘I think you want to see me, but am not entirely sure why’ is not something you do every day. I should also add, I had never before heard of an Orthotist. Such mystery all to fit me with a wig!

3) Cancer gives you tattoos: I didn’t think a serious illness would make me a rebel. Now the proud owner of three tattoos for radiotherapy alignment purposes, I am no stranger to a bit of inking. Now all I have to do is wait for my final tattoo when I get my nipple back!

4) Losing your hair downstairs makes peeing in a straight line pretty tricky: if you’ve asked me a year ago whether I would feel comfortable discussing weeing tactics at all, let alone publically, I would have laughed out loud. Now, pretty much anything goes. Try it ladies and you just tell me if don’t agree!

5) Being bald can be brilliant: getting acquainted with my bald head is one of the most liberating things I have ever experienced. While I would never wish to watch the clumps fall into the sink again, I am now pretty comfortable with my head shape and am still loving the ease with which I can get ready for the day. Silky smooth legs are also a bonus! Just wish the nose hair would return quickly.

6) Leeches may be used in breast reconstruction surgery: thankfully, these little beasties didn’t make an appearance in my cancer story, but I was slightly shocked to hear they might. Apparently they can help encourage blood flow if the new boob starts to struggle. This was a bit of oversharing on the part of the nurse prepping me gift surgery!

7) Tea can taste bad: I thought I would never see the day I would decline a cup of tea. Lose your tastebuds, however, and it’s one of the first things to go. I guess I also thought I couldn’t love tea more than I did. Getting my tastebuds back, however, has given me a whole new appreciation for the brown stuff! Rediscovering herbal teas (the smell is still a bit potent) may take a little longer.

8) A saline flush tastes like mouldy oranges – and that orange-flavoured laxative drink they give you doesn’t taste like oranges at all: it would be fair to say, I will never look at an orange the same way again. I still love them, but don’t be surprised if I run out the room if I ever smell a mouldy one again. That PICC line (which I couldn’t imagine having inside me and then couldn’t imagine having out) has a lot to answer for.

9) There are women walking around with magnets in their knickers: yes, if you see a lady attaching herself to a supermarket trolley or opening a drawer with her pants, do not fear. She is probably just fed up of the hell that is the hot flush and desperate for a solution. For the record, it didn’t work for me so no need to keep me away from filing cabinets.

10) Boobs are pretty unexciting: breasts, boobs, jugs, melons, cupcakes and mounds. This year, I have seen (and spoken about) the lot and I have to tell you, they are not all they are cracked up to be. While I will always have a soft spot for my man-made mound, I have started to see boobs less as sexy body bits and more as mundane fleshy lumps. That doesn’t mean I will be stripping off at every available opportunity.

You certainly can’t say the last nine months have been boring. I would say they’ve been anything but.

Question is, knowing what I know now, will life ever be the same again? And, would I want it to be?

Breast cancer lesson 148: Life is too short to save things for best

This morning, a rather surprising reminder popped up on my Blackberry alongside the ‘Take Clonidine’ and ‘rub in Doublebase’ requests. All it said was: ‘life is too short to save anything for best’. Quite why I thought to write it down and deliver it myself on this particular day, I will never know. But, I’m really glad I did.

Engaging with my possessions is something I’ve been doing a lot more of this year. I, like a lot of people in the world, have a tendency to put certain things in a ‘best’ category. And, when they achieve this coveted position, they are pretty much never seen again.

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Why is it I have immaculate-looking pans, but always default back to my university pan with dodgy handle and food-encrusted bottom? (Quite what masterpiece I think I’ll be rustling up, I’ll never know.) Why is it that tops I buy after dreaming about them for weeks are carefully preserved in my wardrobe? (I’m not sure my wardrobe appreciates them quite as much as I do.) Why is it that special stationery is always too special for my ideas? Why is it that hand cream seems like an essential purchase at the time even when I feel like I need a special occasion to use it? And, why is it that when a meal is deemed good enough to repeat, it gets popped in the recipe tin and somehow forgotten about? (I always seem to focus on new meals rather than old favourites.)

Why indeed! This year I have come to realise that there’s no point saving things for a special occasion, because that special occasion may never come. And, the trouble with the word ‘best’ is, you can rarely spot a ‘best’ moment because it is almost impossible to define. Saying ‘best’ takes away the hope of there being something better in the future.

I have come to the conclusion, as explained by the recent reintroduction of my school-time favourite fountain pen to my life, if you want a good day to be great, why not start by filling it with your favourite things? When I discovered the pen the other day while rummaging through my bedside table, I remember thinking to myself how much I used to enjoy writing with it. And, then I thought, if I love it so much, why am I not writing with it every single day. Before I knew it, I was popping in a fresh cartridge (from about the year 2000) and giving my writing finger back its old inky smudge. Before I knew it, I was smiling while writing the word ‘bleach’ on the supermarket shopping list.

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A special occasion isn’t something you wait for, it’s something you have to create – not just once in a while, but everyday. (Just to clarify, writing the word bleach is not a stand out moment in my life – things aren’t that bad!)

I remember a friend once telling me that she always wears good (and matching) knickers and bras just in case something happens to her and she ends up in hospital unexpectedly. Now, this might seem slightly macabre, but I like her thinking. Of course, at the moment, hospital trips are not unexpected for me and, I think that If I do end up in one unexpectedly, I won’t particularly care about the colour of my knickers and whether they match my bra (when you are used to a nurse pulling up your magic pants, it would seem strange to suddenly adopt such a view). And, I really would have to invest to be so co-ordinated. What I like is the idea that matching underwear actually means something to her. And, by wearing it every day, she is celebrating that fact every day.

So whatever it is (pants, socks, pens, notebooks or even glasses), I challenge you to stop thinking that the best is yet to come, and start bringing a bit of your best into daily life. If you’re waiting for that moment, chances are you’ll never get it. And, if you aren’t, who knows what doors will open for you when you’ve injected a little more happiness into your day? Please do post and share your favourite things. I won’t be posting a pic of my favourite knickers, but I can tell you I have a ‘best’ mug, cup, pen, pan and notebook (for starters). I even have ‘best’ marigolds!

I’m off to drink tea out of a special mug, eat my special chutney before it goes off and write on the first page of a special notebook (that’s about six years old). All while wearing a special top. Daring I know!

As a quick aside, radiotherapy is still ongoing. Amusingly, while writing this post in the waiting room, I heard my name being mentioned by the radio team. All I could hear was fragments, but I got ‘she’s the young one’ and ‘why don’t you just ask her?’. At that point, I started imagining what they might be thinking. Would I have to demonstrate something? Would I have to take my top off for somebody else? Would I be bumped down the list?

About five minutes later, I was greeted by a friendly lady who asked whether I would mind changing one of my appointment times to 8.30am. She thought she was asking a lot, so she was delighted when I reacted like I’d just won the lottery. Being called ‘the’ young one, however, reminded me just how few of us ‘young ones’ there are (thank goodness). I am happy to be the odd one out, but I’d rather be known as the smiley one who always seems happy when she’s writing with her very nice fountain pen :-).

Breast cancer lesson 147: Why I won’t complain about knotted hair again

One thing I really miss about having no hair is the hairdresser’s chair. I don’t miss the expense, or the fact I don’t have much glamorous chat (although I can hold my own when it comes to the latest on X Factor). I just miss the me time, the head massage while I’m having my hair washed, the ‘just-stepped-out-of-the-salon-you’ll look-like-this-for-five-minutes’ effect and the fact that, for at least 40 minutes, my image is in someone else’s hands. (I also miss the tea, the biscuit and the chance to read issues of Heat and Hello).

In truth, I have actually been to the hairdresser once since my number two back in April (although even that did not count as a proper appointment). Duncan treated me to a trip to the barbers (for him to get his haircut I hasten to add) on the way to a wedding last month. I remember chuckling to myself as I watched Duncan get his 10 minute clip, thinking that even in a barbers, I had less hair than everyone else. Thank goodness I had my hat on, so that they couldn’t see my ‘baby-like baldie’ look. Needless to say, I won’t be accompanying him again any time soon. It wasn’t much of a date :-).

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I have discovered, however, that you don’t need a hairdresser to give your head a bit of pampering. You just need a ‘New’ bar from Lush. This red soap-like bar (that actually smells a bit like Christmas due to the cinnamon content) is apparently the answer to quicker hair growth. Whether or not it actually lengthens my locks remains to be seen, but it feels lovely to get lathered up and, with 80 washes per bar, it’s a pretty cost-effective pampering activity. I have heard that there are other shampoos that can prove useful in the hair growth department, so if you have had any success with a product, do let me know. I haven’t, however, heard of one that ensures your hair doesn’t grow back grey. It is hard to tell right now, but there is a lightness to it. Am hoping for blonde – or a good cut and colour before too long.

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Of course, the shampooing has made the fluff I call hair stand to attention a little bit more, so I am sporting a bit of a chicken look today. I have been told that it is best to go au naturel and leave the hats at home to help encourage growth, so London had a good look at the fluff today.

With its ‘first-shampooing since April’ moment, Sunday was another of those mini milestone days I have been keen to celebrate. I am sure it won’t be too long before I enjoy my first hairbrushing day and even my first haircut. Life seems to be flying by at the moment and the idea that active treatment will be over in two weeks amazes me.

On the subject of haircuts, now I have fluff, my thoughts have been turning to post-chemo cuts. I feel lucky that I actually like short hair and get to experiment with all the styles I have also avoided (through fear of hating them and not being able to stick the hair back on). When you’ve hot no hair, having something to call your own is pretty exciting – although I know I have many more months of the GI Jackie look before anything resembling a style makes its way onto my head.

The style I do fancy is something resembling the look Brody’s wife opts for midway through season one of Homeland (yes, I appreciate I am miles behind). It’s a pixie with a longer bit on top (click here for a quick peak). For now, it’s just a dream staring out at me from the TV screen. I can’t wait for the day when I can call it – or something quite like it – my own! If you’ve seen something you think might suit me (here’s a quick reminder of the old Jackie look – or check out my a twitter handle, which is slightly more forgiving), please send me a link. When it comes to making a final decision, time is something I have on my side for once.

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Of course, what I am not missing is having another appointment in the diary – I have enough of those to keep me busy at the moment. It was back to the hospital today – via a wonderful lunch with an old friend I haven’t seen for about 14/15 years – for the next radiotherapy blast. Highlight of today’s speedy appointment was the moment when the technician said: ‘now, if you’d just like to lie like a big rock or something like that, this would be a lot easier.’ I know I had doughnuts for dessert, but a big rock?! Really?!

As an aside, if there is someone you haven’t contacted for a really long time, why not make September the month you get back in touch. As someone who is now saying thank you to all those who have touched my life over the last three decades, I highly recommend it. Now is the time to say what you mean and tell the people that matter just how valuable they are.

Back at home after blasting number five, there is only one thing I want to do – and that’s get the shampoo out again. Let’s hope all this washing doesn’t wash it off.

There’s one thing for certain, I won’t ever complain about knotted hair again.